John McCarthy grew up in Ireland. He studied medicine in Dublin. When Hudson Taylor first met John McCarthy in the home of missionary trainer Grattan Guinness in Dublin in February, 1866, he was already “mature and thoughtful, older [than other new inquirers to the CIM] and married with three children” (Broomhall 4.118). Writing in his diary of Taylor’s presentation to these potential recruits and then afterwards alone with McCarthy, he said:
I there heard the answer from God to many prayers … I see him now, so quiet, so very unassuming in his manner and address, but so full of the power of God. I found that night that I had not only heard the answers from the Lord as to my sphere of service, but that I had found the God-given leader in the work to which God had called me… (He had) a wonderful fund of sympathy which led (us) to feel that he considered these matters under discussion to be of primary importance, so that for the time being evidently [visibly] gave them his undivided attention” (Broomhall 4.119).
“Many people had told McCarthy that having a family was an insuperable barrier to his being a missionary overseas. When Hudson Taylor told him there was scope for married as well as single men and women, it was the first encouragement he had received” (Broomhall 4. 119).
McCarthy followed up that initial encounter with Taylor by going to England for further interviews in March 1867. He was struck during these days of learning more about the CIM with “the manifest dependence upon God for guidance, shown in the frequent reference of all matters to the Lord, [that] was no doubt the secret of the calm, steady perseverance to attain the object in view” (Broomhall 4.132).
These comments about Hudson Taylor tell us as much about McCarthy as they do the leader of the CIM. Clearly, he valued spiritual leadership that was also practical.
His wife was expecting a child at this time. When the first party of CIM missionaries sailed with Taylor on the Lammermuir in 1866, he “stood by his wife’s reluctance to face the voyage with a new-born babe and three other children, and deferred their sailing until October” (Broomhall 4,150). He did go to London to see the ship sail away, however.
Early Days in China
John and his family arrived in Shanghai on February 3, 1867. They were met by James Meadows, who helped them change into Chinese dress and escorted them to Hangzhou, where the Lammermuir missionaries were living.
When they came in from the road, they immediately saw Hudson Taylor standing on a table and preaching to the assembled Chinese. McCarthy, who had medical training, was soon helping Taylor treat the sick, dispensing medicines while Taylor saw patients, about 15-160 a day. He wrote: “Some successful operations for cataracts … seemed little short of miraculous to people who were so ignorant of foreign medicine and surgery … Only those who were nearest (to him) could at all estimate the amount of self-denial involved in giving up (his own part in evangelism) in order to be free to help others in a more widespread evangelization of the country” (Broomhall 4.286).
John McCarthy could not have joined Taylor at a better time, for several members of the original party, led by Lewis Nicoll, were rebelling against the requirements that they wear Chinese dress and eat Chinese food. To make matters worse, they were spreading false rumors about Taylor’s conduct towards the single women in their group.
An older, mature man of about thirty, John McCarthy fitted in cheerfully and energetically from the start, wearing Chinese clothes, making rapid progress in the language, and restoring a healthy sanity at No 1 [the address of their house]. He politely brushed off Nicol’s attempts to influence him, and his sense of responsibility and quick understanding allowed Hudson Taylor to feel less isolated in the direction of affairs (Broomhall 4.292).
By thus standing with Hudson Taylor, McCarthy incurred “the dislike and jealousy of the disaffected” (Broomhall 4.296).
Soon, he had enough Mandarin to lead the prayer meeting for the Chinese people in their household. He and George Duncan “led the way” in tea shop evangelism with the other men, “sitting among the Chinese men of leisure and sipping tea while they discussed anything under the sun. It taught them more than they could learn by other means, and opened up opportunities, when answering endless questions, to introduce the gospel” (Broomhall 4. 311).
Increasingly, he was becoming a trusted companion and support to Hudson Taylor. For example, when Taylor traveled to Xiaoshan to deal with Lewis Nicoll’s landlord, he took McCarthy with him. Taylor was eager to get away from Hangzhou to explore potential places to send the new missionaries farther inland. He was confident that McCarthy, with Wang Lae-djun, the future pastor of the church there, could “hold the fort” - that is, manage the church, the household, and the medical work – without him (Broomhall 4.314).
When Taylor finally did break away on a trip in search of a new mission base in the Yanzhou prefecture in mid-June, 1867, he again took McCarthy and Duncan, along with two Chinese companions, with him. The plan was to leave McCarthy and Duncan to learn the local dialect “and do what spreading of the gospel they could” (Broomhall 4.323).
McCarthy’s journals provide indispensable descriptions of their journey by different sorts of transportation, the people whom they encountered, and the ways in which Taylor showed them how to do pioneer evangelism. He would never forget these priceless lessons. Years later, he wrote:
All the way, either on boat or on shore, in the teashops – in the street or in temples, wherever people congregated, they heard the story of redeeming love … It was evident that the real motive power of the life of the Lord’s servant [Hudson Taylor] was that the love of God had been shed abroad in his heart, and that there was a real love for the Chinese people and a true appreciation of the many sterling qualities in the Chinese character, which raised them so entirely above the other heathen nations. (Broomhall 4.329)
Broomhall continues: “The lesson was not lost on either McCarthy or Duncan, exceptional pioneers of the future, or on their Chinese companions” (Broomhall 4.330).
They rented a place in Yanzhou, engaged a local teacher of the dialect, and left McCarthy and Aseng, one of their Chinese companions. McCarthy and Aseng stayed there until he became ill and had to return to Hangzhou, where he found that his children were sick, too. Even so, it was apparent to his friends that he had made excellent progress in the language.
It took him until August to recuperate fully, so he was with Hudson Taylor and Maria when their little daughter Grace died. His diary offers insight into how God sustained the Taylors in their grief:
It is impossible to separate even in thought the husband and wife at the time. [They were] sustained and helped to glorify God and be an example to those around of submission and joyful acquiescence in the will of God. (Broomhall 4.364)
A.J. Broomhall describes the condition of the CIM at a time when Hudson Taylor was making plans for further advance to the south of Hangzhou: “In [James] Meadows, [John] Stevenson and McCarthy he had men of the best quality to do it” (Broomhall 4.366).
Because another CIM worker, Williamson, became ill, McCarthy had to go to Huzhou to take his place in September of 1867. Trouble had been brewing there for some time, with the local population being stirred up by inflammatory and totally false posters posted by one of the senior literati. Eventually, when McCarthy and a Chinese helper were trying to engage some people in conversation in a tea shop, they were mobbed. The Chinese was severely beaten and was only barely saved by McCarthy, who was a very muscular man, and who then carried him back to their premises. Hudson Taylor decided that he should return to Hangzhou.
During the fracas, McCarthy had acted calmly and bravely, showing the strength of body and character that would later enable him to make pioneering journeys.
As Hudson Taylor continued to make plans for further advance, some counseled caution, but McCarthy encouraged him. (Quoting Habakkuk 3:17-18), he continued:
And such faith and such faith alone, will carry us through if our mission is to do a work for God in this land; none will need it … more than yourself … And if our way does appear cloudy and uncertain, and the days of joy seem to be very few and far between, yet if He is with us in the fire … in His presence is fulness of joy. (Broomhall 5.51)
When Hudson Taylor took most of the new missionaries to other cities, McCarthy was left in Hangzhou to help Charles Judd and his wife Elizabeth “learn the ropes” of life in China. Broomhall says that Taylor left medicines for “John McCarthy’s dispensary,” indicating that he was using his medical training to minister to the health needs of the Chinese (Broomhall 5.54).
When Robert White, a missionary candidate in England, brushed aside all advice to defer marriage before leaving for China, Taylor wrote, “Give me a score of men such as Williamson and Duncan and McCarthy and with God’s blessing in less than four years’ time there will not be a province without its missionary” (Broomhall 5.56).
We often see him mentioned in the narrative as one whom Taylor trusted to step in and help out with difficult people or circumstances. Taylor asked him to vet a letter he had written to the chronic liar and dissident Nicoll announcing that he was being dismissed from the mission. McCarthy replied, “Thank God, dear brother, and take courage, for if ever you were helped in writing a letter, I believe you were in the one I have just handed to Nicol” (Broomhall 5.128). In Hangzhou, the church was led by Wang Lae-djun and his wife, with the assistance of Jennie Faulding (Taylor’s future wife after Maria died). Jennie said of McCarthy, that she “would choose to be nowhere else and with no other colleagues than the McCarthys” (Broomhall 5. 127). McCarthy was also overseeing the work of the Ningbo church.
Taylor not only involved McCarthy in delicate and difficult tasks, but treated him as a valued friend. For example, when Taylor felt that he and Maria needed a rest, he suggested that Maria invite Jennie Faulding, long considered a member of their household, to travel with them to visit the place of the Taylors’ honeymoon. “Travelling with Alosao, the first Hangzhou Christian woman, in the care of John McCarthy in another boat she [Jennie] reached Fenghua” (Broomhall 5.195).
“The Exchanged Life”
Nor was this relationship one-sided. As a result of reading articles in The Revival magazine, McCarthy and his wife, along with other CIM missionaries, began “to think of a much higher (plane) of life and service than we had before thought possible” (Broomhall 5.211). What came to be called the “Keswick” teaching centered on full surrender to Christ, ongoing trust in him, faith in his promise to supply the Holy Spirit, and ceasing to work so hard to become holy. At the time, the terms used were “the exchanged life” and “union with Christ.” The McCarthys found this new joy in August 1969, and he sent Taylor two letters describing their experience:
(Quoting a book he had read) “‘To let my living Saviour work in me His will – my sanctification – is what I would live for … Abiding, not striving, nor struggling.’ … I seem as if the first glimmer of the dawn of a glorious day has risen upon me. I hail it with trembling - yet with trust… How then to have our faith increased? Only by thinking of all that Jesus is – all he is for us… Not a striving to have faith or to increase our faith. But a looking at the faithful One, seems all we need, a resting in the loved One” (Broomhall 5.213).
These letters spoke to Taylor’s heart and he was transformed by this new kind of daily reliance upon Christ as the one in union with whom he could knew trust for rest of soul and growth in holiness and effectiveness.
McCarthy demonstrated his courage and care for others again when he and Mr. Tsui, who had been flogged in an earlier incident, volunteered to go to help another missionary family who were being threatened by violent students preparing to take their exams. Watching him grow, Taylor later asked McCarthy to “keep a pastoral eye on all the south Zhejiang missionaries [of the CIM], as he himself could not visit them. This would train McCarthy for leadership” (Broomhall 5.260). In times of crisis, he, and a few other men, were “unshakeable” (Broomhall 5.276).
Clearly, Taylor was grooming McCarthy for more responsibility. On the other hand, he sensed that McCarthy was not yet, or perhaps never would be, an effective superintendent. Thinking of possible men who could help him in administration as the mission grew, he wrote, as a pioneer missionary, “McCarthy would work a province better than many would a Fu (prefecture),” but he was too mild to exercise authority over others. (Broomhall 5.277) That was in 1870.
In the early months of 1871, however, when “Hudson Taylor fell ill again and had to cancel a planned visit to Ningbo and the southern area, he very carefully delegated his pastoral duties to John McCarthy. McCarthy was already advising the church leaders of the Hangzhou, Xiaoshan and Ningbo (Bridge Street) congregations. If he were also to visit his missionary colleagues, … he could encourage them and help in any way he saw fit. He could be in practice a real though ‘not a nominal bishop or overseer’” (Broomhall 5. 290). Taylor’s instructions to him evince his unusual perspective on, and success in, Christian leadership:
You are really their head as you become their helper and servant. I wish you to feel responsible before the Lord for seeking to help … really help them, really pray much for them, and, as far as possible, with them; feel and evince a deep interest in all their out-stations and work generally. And above all, don’t let them dream you are taking a higher place than their own - leave God to show that in due time. (Broomhall 5.290)
McCarthy’s responsibilities increased when Hudson Taylor and Jennie Faulding, both in very bad health, had to return to England in August 1871. While continuing to supervise the missionaries in southern China, he took over Jennie’s place in the church at Hangzhou. He suffered not a little during this time of Taylor’s absence, because donations given to the mission in England were not being remitted to workers in China. To make matters worse, what little he possessed was taken by robbers. Wang Lae-djun stepped in to help, pawning some of his own clothes and giving the money to McCarthy to help defray expenses of the two CIM boarding schools in Hangzhou.
In Hangzhou, McCarthy conducted continuous courses to train Chinese Christians to join in the work there “or far afield as missionaries to other cities” (Broomhall 5.293). Increasingly, he was maturing into a pioneer missionary:
Acting on Hudson Taylor’s advice, John McCarthy walked all the way to Taizhou and back, ‘preaching along the way’ and discovering a personal ability which was to become part of the history of China. At Ningbo, Fenghua, Taizhou and Wenzhou his coming cheered the churches and missionaries, who wrote appreciatively to Hudson Taylor. At Wenzhou and Taizhou such crowds were thronging the premises (a hundred or more day after day to hear the gospel preached) that larger chapels were urgently needed. (Broomhall 5. 295)
In 1871, more than fifteen years before the publication of John Nevius’ The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (1886), McCarthy was practicing and promoting similar principles of an “indigenous method” of church expansion. In this, he was following the concepts long held by Hudson Taylor, who was a friend of Nevius. He called for itinerant preaching by Chinese evangelists, and then “lengthened residence of the preacher among the masses” living in their own houses and supporting themselves during the week (Broomhall 5:334-335).
In a paper summarizing the work of the CIM in 1872, Hudson Taylor wrote: “In both Ningbo and (Hangzhou) districts [McCarthy] has a large number of Chinese colporteurs (men who sold Christian literature) and evangelists. The work of some of these has been itinerant, but settled work is on the increase, and is by far the most effective” (Broomhall 5. 335).
Thus, we see that McCarthy exemplified Hudson Taylor’s consistent strategy, which called for (1) itinerant preaching around a city, followed by (2) settled residence, (3) with Chinese Christians playing the most prominent role, (4) to establish truly indigenous churches. That is to say, so-called “blitz evangelism,” with which Taylor and the CIM are commonly charged, was not their policy or practice.
In 1873, Taylor was making plans for further penetration of the gospel into places that were as yet unreached. In February, he asked McCarthy “to take up George Duncan’s work in Anhui and carry it into every one of the province’s eight prefectures.” Taylor would continue with administrative oversight, “while delegating much of McCarthy’s work to Chinese” (Broomhall 5.373). Ever mindful of his mission to take the message of Christ to all of China’s inland provinces, he envisioned a missionary force that would assist the Chinese to minister to their countrymen. Above all, he sought to plant churches that were led and financed by Chinese Christians and that would play the major role in evangelizing other areas.
Thus, he asked McCarthy to leave his family in Zhenjiang and move to Anqing. When McCarthy, over much opposition from the local magistrate, finally found a house there, Taylor wrote, “McCarthy is about to attempt a great work for God, greater than he is aware of… [O]f the eight prefectures McCarthy hoped to occupy, so far ‘he has had two (Chinese pioneers) for some time in two of the cities of this province (of Anhui)’” (Broomhall 5.375).
Furlough and Return
All this work took its toll on McCarthy’s wife, who at one point wanted to give up and return to Great Britain.
In 1875, “John McCarthy brought his ailing family home to recuperate after eight and a half years in China, but was so intent on breaking new ground himself that after only three months in England spent energetically telling all he could about China, he was away again” (Broomhall 6.41). With him on the return voyage were J.J. Turner and Charles Budd, whom he continued training as soon as they reached Shanghai in October 1875.
Epic Journey across China
Returning to Zhenjiang, he wrote to Hudson Taylor that he and the new workers were eager to “go forward” – the phrase used at the time for advance into new provinces. When Taylor joined McCarthy in Zhenjiang, he said he was “a great comfort” (Broomhall 6.73).
Hudson Taylor had long planned to send men on evangelistic and exploratory trips into Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. This kind of itinerant evangelism “far and near” – the title of a plenary address given by Taylor at the 1877 General Missionary Conference in Shanghai, often criticized at the time and since – was meant to lead to settled residence by missionaries. It was to prepare for, and not to replace, in-depth teaching and discipleship.
John McCarthy “had an invitation from an influential, enlightened young man to visit his home at Guang’an deep in the heart of [Sichuan]. He was ready to go” (Broomhall 6.91).
Accompanied by an ex-soldier evangelist, Yang Cunling (Yang Ts’un-ling), McCarthy began what was to have been a secret journey from Zhenjiang in December, 1877. Traveling up the Yangzi, they stopped in Wuhan, and in Sashi, where they spent several days preaching and selling books and meeting no opposition.
They reached Yichang on February 25, planning to stay for a few days while they found different boats to ascend the rapids. Meanwhile, local literati had been spreading false rumors about the intentions of a British consular visit to make preparations for a foreign settlement. Placards announced that all foreigners must leave immediately, lest their residences be burned down and they be killed. McCarthy chose to remain with the other CIM missionaries to avoid giving suspicion that they were guilty of the crimes with which the foreigners were being charged. When angry rioters assailed the mission premises, he calmly met them, as he had years before in Huzhou. Eventually, they had to flee as the house was, indeed, destroyed in a fire set by another set of rioters.
Finally, McCarthy, his Sichuan friend Zhang, who was a teacher, and the evangelist Yang left by boat, traversing the treacherous gorges and reaching Wushan city in Sichuan. From there they went by boat through the gorges and rapids to Wanxian where, “leaving his teacher with the boat and baggage, and reducing their ‘impedimenta’ to what they themselves could carry if need be, Mc Carthy, Zhang and Yang Cuiling struck out overland on foot” (Broomhall 6.125). Everywhere they went, the inhabitants were welcoming. “His relaxed friendliness drew the best out of people” (Broomhall 6. 125).
They discovered that not all foreigners were distrusted and even hated by the Chinese, “and that simple knowledge of the gospel was being carried far and wide by Chinese travellers” who had heard it from missionaries and Chinese believers (Broomhall 6.125).
On the other hand, they did encounter strong anti-Roman Catholic feelings, aroused because of the French protectorate over Roman Catholic missionaries and Christians and by the privileges that the missionaries demanded as a result of treaty stipulations.
Reaching Chongqing, they rented premises for other CIM missionaries to use as a base, left as much of their baggage as they could, and hired a carrier who know the way. At this point, McCarthy’s “secret plan” began to unfold: He intended to walk all the way to Burma and back. Dressing like the Chinese, living and eating as they would, carrying no weapons for self-defense, and preaching the gospel wherever they went, they encountered no real opposition. Being fluent in Chinese “counted for much” (Broomhall 6. 129), though they found one town that had been settled by immigrants from Nanjing, Yang’s home city, whose dialect McCarthy had first learned when he left Hangzhou. There they were “received almost as kinsmen” (Broomhall 6.129).
As they drew closer to Bhamo, Burma, where John Stevenson lived, they met people who remembered the valuable medical services he had rendered to them, and were urged to pass on greetings to the members of the CIM there. Finally, on August 26th, after five months (including some periods of two or three weeks where they stayed to preach the gospel), they reached Bhamo. They had covered a distance of about 3,000 miles. “In so doing he had become the first unofficial Westerner to cross China from east to west,” a feat for which he was later invited to give a report by the Royal Geographic Society in London (Broomhall 6.130).
Intending only to visit his missionary friends in Bhamo for a few days, McCarthy was forced by British authorities to remain in Burma and not to return to China. After waiting six months for them to change their minds, he gave up and headed home, arriving in England on April 25, 1878, and was reunited with his family.
Hudson Taylor was disappointed that McCarthy too easily allowed himself to be detained in Burma, when the Chefoo Convention expressly gave the right to any foreigner to travel to and within China. “The agreeable placidity that made McCarthy a good missionary and a poor supervisor of others had once again limited his effectiveness” (Broomhall 6. 133).
In his report to the Royal Geographic Society, McCarthy noted how well had had been treated throughout his journey by all the Chinese, including officials, whom he had met: “Everywhere I received only civility and kindness” (Broomhall 6.134). The chairman of the meeting, “Sir Rutherford Alcock, declared the journey of more than 2,000 miles actually on foot infinitely more productive and fruitful than many made recently, and attributed McCarthy’s success to his wearing Chinese clothes and his fluency in the language” (Broomhall 6. 134).
Unlike some other missionaries, who spoke of their Chinese guides as “native assistants,” McCarthy gave full credit to Yang Cunling as “an invaluable companion ‘without whose assistance I should have been utterly unable to carry out this journey’” (Broomhall 6.132).
A few months later, when James Cameron travelled to Burma, “People he met remembered John McCarthy, and in place after place gospel posters were still where he and his companions had pasted them up” (Broomhall 6.151). McCarthy’s epic journey played a major role in later strategic planning for CIM work in Yunnan: Hudson Taylor followed his judgment, joined by other travelers, “that Kunming would be a valuable centre for the Mission in Yunnan … and that Dali held the key to western Yunnan and the border tribes” (Broomhall 6. 255).
Second Furlough in England
McCarthy tried to help with the work of the CIM home office while he remained in England. After the formal appointment of Benjamin Broomhall, it was stated that he and W. Soltau would serve under his direction. He assisted with the editing of China’s Millions, with Hudson Taylor “supplying him with material and full instructions from China” (Broomhall 6.191). An effective public speaker, he also represented the mission at meetings around the country.
In 1883, when Taylor was again home and much in demand as a speaker on China and the CIM, he and McCarthy held meetings for students and interviewed inquirers in Glasgow. A “wave of popularity” drew many to the CIM at that time, culminating in the outgoing of the “Cambridge Seven.” One of these, C.T Studd, was at a farewell meeting for McCarthy, whom Taylor had asked to serve as his deputy in China for a while. “Listening to McCarthy tell about his own call by God when Hudson Taylor came to Dublin in 1865, and to Stanley Smith and Robert Landale, ‘all (of whom) spoke splendidly,’ Studd knew without doubt that God was sending him to China” (Broomhall 6.341). Archibald Orr Ewing, who joined the CIM a year later, had his interest in China aroused by John McCarthy at this time.
In Glasgow, before he left for China, McCarthy consulted “with men of the first quality. If office routine had not been McCarthy’s forte, personal counselling at a high spiritual level was another matter” (Broomhall 6.343). Perhaps this was the result of being, like John Stevenson and Robert Landale, “refined and brought closer to Christ by sickness or bereavement or other distress in their families. [Together, these three men] were making a strong if quiet impression” (Broomhall 6. 329).
He sailed for China on November 6, 1884. When the “Cambridge Seven” arrived in Shanghai in 1885, McCarthy was there to meet them. He took advantage of their fame and the huge interest in the Mission and in the gospel to arrange meetings for them among foreigners. Several notable people, including the editor of the Shanghai Courier, were converted at these gatherings. Before that, McCarthy had dispersed into the interior the new missionaries who had arrived as a result of prayer for “Seventy” more laborers.
Hudson Taylor returned to Shanghai in March. Seeing the need for efficient administration for the rapidly growing mission, he appointed McCarthy to handle accounts and remittances to missionaries for the CIM in China. He did his job well until May 1, 1885, when he handed over the meticulously audited account books to James Broumton, who had been named treasurer.
By the end of 1885, Hudson Taylor had decided which men to appoint as superintendents of the provinces in which the CIM had workers. “Faithful John McCarthy undertook supervision of Jiangxi and Jiangsu, where the chief women’s work and women’s training home was located” (Broomhall 6. 386). The new women members were handed over to his care as soon as they arrived in China. As the women finished their language training, he would escort them to their new places of service. Later, when many single women had been deployed by the CIM to work in pairs without the help of men, living in Chinese Christian homes and quietly assisting Chinese men to assume leadership in the new churches, they served “under the fatherly supervision of John McCarthy for the first five years,” until Orr Ewing replaced him (Broomhall 6. 398).
Our sources do not tell us about his later life.
From the preceding narrative, we can see that John McCarthy possessed a number of sterling qualities that enabled him to plant churches, lead others, and undertake difficult assignments year after year. In all respects, he was an example “to Chinese Christians and to younger missionaries” (Broomhall 5.391), including the new women missionaries who came under his supervision later.
Though he was surely a solid, dependable man, he also had an “amicable” personality; he was easy to get along with. The CIM historian A.J. Broomhall does not say why McCarthy’s amiable disposition made him less effective as a district superintendent than he otherwise might have been.
One question that immediately arises in the modern reader’s mind is, “What about his wife and children?” We don’t even know their names. He was able to spend good time with them while back in Great Britain, but it seems that his ministry in China took him away from his family both before and after that. Like John Stevenson, he was not able to be present with his wife and children for years on end. We can only speculate about the reasons why Hudson Taylor and the culture of the CIM could allow such a long separation.
John McCarthy formed an essential part in the remarkable team of missionaries who led the advance of the CIM into new territories. His consistent use of indigenous missionary principles fostered the growth of many self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating Chinese churches. The depth of his walk with God equipped him to be an empathetic and wise counselor.